We visit the new Tomodachi ga Yatteru Cafe in Harajuku, where staff are paid to pose as your friends.

Tokyo’s Harajuku is always at the forefront of youth culture trends, where you can experiment with new trends in fashion, and if you know where to go, new trends in cafe culture too.

The latest place to cause a stir in the neighbourhood is Tomodachi ga Yatteru Cafe, which translates to either “Cafe Run by Your Friend” or “Cafe Run by Your Friends“, due to the word “tomodachi” being both singular and plural, depending on the context.

Either way, when you walk through the door here it’s safe to say that everyone here is your friend, because it’s staffed by actors who’ll greet you with the same relaxed demeanour and conversational chat you’d expect from someone who’s known you a while.

▼ Members of staff include actors, models and creatives in the entertainment industry.

This unique approach to serving customers is particularly profound in Japan, where staff in the customer service industry generally use keigo (honorific speech) when speaking to customers. On one hand, this type of honorific language is a wonderful way of showing respect and making the customer feel like a god, but on the other hand, it creates a barrier between the customer and staff as it lends itself to a formal atmosphere that’s totally removed from the way one would converse with friends.

The formal nature of customer service in Japan makes it hard for a customer to strike up a casual conversation with staff at a cafe here, in a way that might come easily and naturally abroad. And that’s where Tomodachi ga Yatteru Cafe aims to step in, taking things up a notch by giving customers the chance to experience what it might feel like to step into a cafe that’s run by your friend.

▼ If you’re going to have a friend that runs a cafe, there’s no cooler place for that cafe to be than in Harajuku.

The idea of visiting a friend’s cafe in Harajuku is one that particularly appealed to our reporter, and Harajuku fashionista wannabe, Mr Sato, who’s been trying to fit in with the cool crowd in this hip neighbourhood for years.

So he headed out to pay the place a visit, making his way to the third floor at the sign that read “友だちがやってるカフェ” (“Tomodachi ga Yatteru Cafe”).

Photo © SoraNews24

Despite his unbridled enthusiasm for crazy food challenges and pole-dancing on rooftops, Mr Sato says he’s not great at meeting people for the first time. When he talks to people he doesn’t know well his nerves tend to take over, making his face twitch with shyness, and he doesn’t like it when he feels forced to be friendly.

So while Mr Sato was keen to feel like he had fashionable friends in loftier places other than the SoraNews24 office, this cafe visit was going to be a test of his nerves. And when he stood before the glass door of the cafe and saw an attractive female member of staff wave at him from behind the counter, he felt his pulse quicken.

No lady like this would ever be friends with an old, bearded, long-haired man like me in real life,” was the thought that immediately ran through his head, but lo and behold, their friendship had already begun.

Photo © SoraNews24

As he stepped through the front door, she called out to him with a smile, saying, “Long time no see!”

This greeting was far removed from the usual “Irasshaimase” (“Welcome“) that Mr Sato is used to hearing upon entering an establishment like this, but strangely, he didn’t feel as if it was forced or inappropriate.

After taking stock of the situation for a few seconds, Mr Sato returned the reply, saying, “Long time no see!”

With the walls around his anxious heart already melting, the waitress didn’t miss a beat as she continued their conversation. “How long has it been, now? Three years?”

Mr Sato smiled, as they both knew this cafe had only opened a few days earlier, on 22 April. Still, he appreciated her setting up the groundwork of their friendship for him, so he replied with: “Yeah, that’s right. It’s been a while.”

The air of familiarity continued as she told him, “We’re a bit full right now.” To which Mr Sato replied with: “Yeah, you look busy.

With a lot of the tables full, Mr Sato decided to get a drink to go, and when he looked at the menu, he immediately knew what he would order.

Well, then, I’ll just get what I always drink.

This wasn’t a sterling bit of improvisation on Mr Sato’s behalf — it’s actually an option listed on the menu as “Itsumo nonderu yatsu” (“What you always drink“).

▼ “Itsumo nonderu yatsu” is underlined on the menu below.

Photo © SoraNews24

With prices ranging from 680-960 yen (US$5.09-$7.18), it’s a bit of a gamble to choose this option, but it’s a low-risk one, as staff suggest what you’d like before making it, and customers can always refuse or suggest something else, just as they would when talking to a friend.

Mr Sato must’ve fit the profile for a drip coffee-loving man, as his friend behind the counter said:

“You always like drip coffee, right? Hot? Iced?”

Mr Sato did want to drink drip coffee, so for a fleeting moment he wondered if they might’ve really been friends three years ago. Shaking off the impossible thought, he smiled and said: “It’s cold today, so I’ll have it hot, please.

With that, his friendly mate went about preparing his coffee for him, and while he was waiting, another member of staff struck up a conversation with him, saying:

“Sorry to make you wait. It’ll just be a moment. But, hey, by the way, hasn’t it been a while? Since we went to the art gallery?”

Well, this was an unexpected turn of events. Mr Sato felt himself being pulled into another fictional story that was so believable it had him wondering if he was losing his memory.

Mr Sato: “Eh, ah, no…I didn’t go to the art gallery.

Staff: “No way, a group of us went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art together one time.

With Mr Sato’s acting skills being as bad as his first-time conversation skills, he found himself taking a moment to come up with a witty response, but thankfully his sparring partner was already on the ball, switching topics to say:

If you were coming, you should’ve sent me a message on Line!” [Line is Japan’s most popular messaging app]

Completely in awe of the staff member’s cheerful communication skills, Mr Sato smiled as his friend handed him his drink while saying, “Come back anytime! I’ll be waiting for you.

It was the perfect moment for Mr Sato to take his leave, and as he did, he felt like he was saying “see you later” to a couple of his coolest friends.

▼ Incidentally, if Mr Sato had ordered two drinks, he would’ve had a cool way to carry them out as well.

Sipping on his coffee outside the cafe, Mr Sato pondered over what had just happened. He’d felt surprisingly comfortable in the presence of staff, and after their interaction, he wondered if more cafes and stores in Japan would do well to adopt this more casual, friendly approach to serving customers.

Anyone who didn’t know about the cafe before visiting would be in for a confusing surprise when greeted by the overly friendly staff, but for Mr Sato, it reminded him of the friendly banter he often sees in cafe scenes in foreign films, and the skit-like performance aspect of it all left him feeling like the star of his very own film.

▼ Mr Sato, the unlikely movie star.

Photo © SoraNews24

Mr Sato says there are a few things to note before visiting the cafe — they don’t accept cash payments, and bar food and drinks are on the menu from 5:30 p.m. Also, Mr Sato’s conversation with staff took place entirely in Japanese, and the cafe doesn’t mention anything about other language options, so the banter might be limited for those wanting to converse in other languages.

All in all, Mr Sato reckons this is a great place to visit for people wanting a deeper connection to Harajuku and its cool culture, and it’s a lot more stylish and far less kitschy than visiting a maid cafe. It’s nice to know he’ll always have a place in Tokyo where he can feel like he’s amongst friends, and it’s now been added to his list of regular places to visit in Harajuku, along with Gonpachi Nori-temaki, this pulled pork specialty joint, and the sushi chain that serves up sushi crepes!

Cafe information
Tomodachi ga Yatteru Cafe 20th Anniversary Cafe / 友だちがやってるカフェ
Address: Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku, Jingumae 6-6-2 Harajuku Bell Pier 3F
Open: 12:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. (cafe from 12:00 p.m.-5:30 p.m., bar from 5:30 p.m. – 11:00 p.m., takeout from 12:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m.)

Featured image: PR Times
Insert images: PR Times unless otherwise stated

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